UK government accused of ‘civil service bashing’ in remote working row

By on 12/08/2021 | Updated on 12/08/2021
Returning to Whitehall: a row was sparked this week over civil servants’ remote working. Credit: Steph Gray/Flickr

A UK civil service union accused some government ministers of indulging in “civil service bashing” while another warned of industrial action, after a war of words was sparked this week about civil servants’ return to the office. 

The flurry of stories in the UK media began when an unnamed senior government minister told the Daily Mail newspaper that civil servants should lose pay if they remained working from home. “If people aren’t going into work, they don’t deserve the terms and conditions they get if they are going into work,” the minister said. 

The Guardian also reported that Whitehall officials had looked for ways to get civil servants back to government offices over the summer, including the option to strip staff of the “London weighting”, a top-up payment to cover the additional costs of living and working in the capital, if they opted to remain at home full-time. 

Earlier this week Downing Street and then the UK business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, dismissed the comments. But Kwarteng did suggest that those returning to the office were more likely to be promoted. “If you look at human organisations people do build relationships and build networks through face-to-face contact,” he added. “People who come into the office may have an advantage in that.”  

The unions hit back 

The briefings prompted a major intervention from the FDA union, which represents professionals and managers in the civil service. In an open letter addressed to Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, the union’s general secretary, Dave Penman, demanded the government “address these issues with civil servants directly”. 

“These insulting and cowardly attacks require a response from government, and I am asking you… to assure civil servants that these views do not represent the views of this government, their employer,” he wrote. 

He argued that civil servants had been “at the forefront of the government’s response” to the COVID-19 pandemic, that they had been committed public servants and had “pioneered news ways of working” as part of their efforts. 

“Yet those same civil servants have woken up today to threats from anonymous cabinet ministers to cut their pay and a series of denigrating remarks about their commitment and effectiveness whilst working from home. I cannot impress upon you enough the upset and anger these comments have caused among civil servants,” he noted.  

Penman urged Gove to send an urgent message to staff publicly distancing the government from the anonymous briefings from its ministers and argued that the comments directly contradicted the main ethos of the government’s Places for Growth strategy, which seeks to provide greater flexible working and well as relocate more civil servants away from London. 

He also took issue with Kwarteng’s comments about the benefits of face-to-face meetings. “If ‘face-to-face’ time is so critical to careers, what message should civil servants working in the Cabinet Office in Glasgow or HM Treasury in Darlington take when, inevitably, they will have less ‘face-to-face’ time with ministers?” he asked. 

In a separate interview, Penman accused some ministers of indulging in “headline grabbing and civil service bashing”.  

The Public and Commercial Services PCS Union (PCS) called the political briefings the “height of cowardice” and said any attempt to dock pay for civil servants would be met with a swift response, including possible industrial action. “PCS is engaged in serious discussions with the Cabinet Office about how we can embrace the post pandemic world with hybrid working and keeping staff safe,” it said in a statement.   

This is not the first time UK politicians and civil servants have clashed over a return to the office during COVID-19. Last September, the government wrote to departments saying it expected 80% to be attending offices at least once a week by the end of that month. Unions resisted saying most would remain working from home until the end of the year. The government had to row back after cases increased significantly.   

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